Qualcomm-Flarion deal may rock wireless world

Qualcomm Inc.’s planned acquisition of mobile broadband vendor Flarion Techologies Inc. sets up a powerful competitor to the emerging mobile WiMax technology and its deep-pocketed proponents, such as Intel Corp.

Alternatives to mobile WiMax have appeared to face futures as niche technologies even though mobile WiMax itself isn’t expected to hit the market until at least 2007.

Industry analysts and others have seen the pending standard for mobile WiMax as the basis of multivendor competition that will cut prices and drive broad adoption. Now Flarion, vendor of a WiMax rival technology that is already shipping, will have the muscle of the developer of CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and key 3G (third-generation) mobile technologies.

Qualcomm on Thursday agreed to buy Flarion for about US$600 million, plus an extra $205 million or so if certain goals are met over the next few years. Flarion, in Bedminster, New Jersey, sells equipment based on a version of OFDM, a system also used in WiMax and some other technologies. Flarion’s version, called FLASH (fast low-latency access with seamless hand-off) OFDM, makes more efficient use of radio spectrum than WiMax and other systems, according to Ronny Haraldsvik, vice president of global communications and marketing at Flarion.

Just as Qualcomm’s CDMA has fought against GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) for years, gaining footholds mostly in North and South America and Asia, Flarion was facing a standards juggernaut armed with superior technology, according to Tad Neeley, a principal at Los Angeles-based equity investment company Gemini Partners Inc. Now a line has been drawn between standards-based, Intel-backed WiMax and Qualcomm-backed FLASH-OFDM, he said.

“There are benefits to scale, so Intel (may) rule the roost, but Qualcomm has been a wildly successful company,” Neeley said.

In addition to its existing relationships with service providers, Qualcomm can provide the resources for marketing and ongoing service and support of FLASH-OFDM worldwide, said IDC analyst Shiv Bakhshi. Qualcomm will continue to support Flarion’s existing deployments and trials, the company said.

FLASH-OFDM won’t replace the CDMA-based technologies at the core of Qualcomm’s business, according to Jeff Belk, senior vice president of marketing at the San Diego-based company

Qualcomm bought Flarion to better equip itself to supply a variety of wireless technologies, Belk said. The company will forge ahead with the evolution of its 3G technologies, CDMA2000 and WCDMA (Wideband CDMA), with greater capacities and features in technologies such as HSDPA (High-Speed Download Packet Access), Belk said. But as operators acquire spectrum in different bands and try to deploy distinctive services, they may also turn to FLASH-OFDM. For example, a carrier may offer CDMA2000 in cities today and later add the Flarion system for wide-area data services in rural areas, he said. Qualcomm wants to support all three tracks, Belk said.

Qualcomm is no stranger to OFDM. Both its Platinum Multicast and FLO (Forward Link Only) content multicasting technologies use OFDM, Belk said. FLO will continue on its current track for the foreseeable future, but the company will examine whether elements of FLASH-OFDM might add something to FLO, company spokesman Jeremy James said.

Following direction from the top — Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm’s recently installed chief executive officer — Qualcomm will use internal competition to advance all its technologies, Belk said.

“There’s no better way to motivate engineers than having them compete for who can generate the best technology,” Belk said.

Integrating the technology into existing networks could be relatively easy. For two and a half years, Flarion has been working on FLASH-OFDM line cards for CDMA and WCDMA cellular base stations, according to Flarion’s Haraldsvik said.

Haraldsvik hopes the acquisition will help to seal a deal for FLASH-OFDM at Sprint Nextel, the powerhouse U.S. mobile operator that is expected to debut tomorrow with the closure of the merger deal between Sprint Corp. and Nextel Communications Inc. Nextel ran extensive trials of Flarion’s equipment in North Carolina that ended earlier this year, whereas Sprint has been working with Intel on WiMax. The merged carrier will control most of the U.S. licenses for a radio band around 2.5GHz, which it will use for wireless broadband.

“Sprint Nextel was always concerned there wouldn’t be a big enough ecosystem around Flarion. That concern has been removed,” Haraldsvik said. “We can expect Sprint Nextel to now have a serious option in the Qualcomm-Flarion combination.”

Sprint being a major CDMA operator, Haraldsvik’s hope may be well-founded, according to Gemini Group’s Neeley.

The deal also may have been a defensive move by Qualcomm, according to Bob Egan, a director at The TowerGroup Inc., a research and consulting company in Needham, Massachusetts. Flarion was beginning to make inroads against CDMA and WCDMA in certain situations in Europe and Asia, he said.

Qualcomm, which now collects licensing revenue on both CDMA2000 and WCDMA, might even gain some leverage over mobile WiMax. Flarion holds patents on technology for cell handoffs in an OFDM network, IDC’s Bakhshi said.

“It will be very interesting to see what happens when WiMax does mobility using OFDM,” Bakhshi said.

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